28 September 2011

Social accountability and freedom of information

By Dr. Antonio G.M. La Viña

Access to information is critical for social accountability and governance at large. Most crucial therefore of the tools that promote social accountability is the freedom of information bill which continues to be pending in Congress. For this reason, I devote the fifth column of my social accountability series on this matter.

While this has been announced as a priority of President Benigno Aquino III almost from his inauguration, it is almost disheartening to note that more than a year has passed since his election to the Presidency without significant progress in getting the bill through Congress, and that he had been virtually silent on the matter in his last State-of-the-Nation Address (although he subsequently addressed the issue in media). To date, the matter is still under “careful study”, which has saddened if not angered government reform activists.

Disappointed as I am about developments, I am not inclined at the moment to either lay blame on him or anyone else for the bill’s stalled status, or to consider this a betrayal of the public trust by people involved. Even well-meaning policies like FOI must pass through the formal legislative process in order to properly become law, and compete with other demands on the government’s agenda. Also, a policy reform as transformative as FOI will naturally encounter much inertia from affected officials, bureaucracies, and interests. The reality is that sustaining far-reaching policies will require much political capital. I am quite familiar with this, in experiences ranging from protecting vulnerable forests while in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, to the painstaking negotiations for peace in Mindanao (as both an observer-consultant and once as part of the government negotiating panel). Governance is a very costly business, which demands the utmost care from its practitioners.

Yet the above should not be misinterpreted as an apology on government’s behalf. I wholeheartedly believe (also because of experiences personal and witnessed) that it is possible for President Aquino to begin fast-tracking the freedom of information bill, or at least take visible and concrete steps to build a culture and foundation of transparency in government. I still side with the voices calling for accountability on the bill’s progress. We must move beyond expressing disappointment or making demands, however. Constructive engagement requires the maturity of effective participation and concrete interaction with government.

In June of last year I wrote about the benefits of freedom of information to governance. I said it empowers citizen participation and improves policy formulation and decision-making. Aside from that, the political benefits of FOI can still outweigh the costs. Certainly for President Aquino, it makes the perfect follow-up to the democratizing legacy of the late former President and his mother Cory Aquino: as she (metaphorically) opened the physical gates of Malacañang to those seeking democracy, he in turn would (literally) open the gates to those seeking information. And while he is not up for re-election, there are senators, representatives, and other local officials who are, and they can benefit from the publicity of fighting for freedom of information. There is good reason for the elected official to fight for FOI. Indeed, we must remember that the Legislature is still the main actor in the passing of laws; and we need to continue building a legislative coalition to back fast-tracking the freedom of information bill through Congress.

FOI will take time; impatience cannot short-circuit thoroughness, legislative care, and due process. Yet it is true that the President is not without some power of initiative beyond FOI. There are indeed concerns raised by critics about freedom of information “via executive order”, that such a piecemeal effort is uneven and doesn’t target critical areas like Statements of Assets and Liabilities of public officials. We should not ignore the potential foundation-building benefits of such advance work, however, both in laying down a sort of “prototype infrastructure” for open government within the bureaucracy and inculcating habits of transparency among civil servants. It is recommended that executive orders to that end be more concrete in their suggestions to simplify access to information (reducing paperwork and red tape by minimizing processes to a single office visit, for example), subsidizing costs, and ensuring the accountability of this exercise.

Finally—and here we return to the social accountability theme pursued in the past few columns—there must be something citizens themselves can contribute towards FOI policy-making, or the eventual policy infrastructure that results. The Affiliated Network for Social Accountability—East Asia Pacific (ANSA-EAP) has been teaching ordinary people how to get involved in governance, which includes strategies on gaining access to information. There are programs like G-Watch and Bantay Kalsada which give citizens the means to gain data from government, and at times contribute information to officials. At the small-scale local level, participating in policy planning gives citizens practical access to information-gathering and dissemination. People themselves are laying down the foundations of open government and open communications with government. FOI doesn’t only demand Executive attention and Legislative action; it needs a pervasive culture of openness from government and civil society alike.

That is one of the advantages that the mainstreaming of social accountability offers FOI. Even if the law is finally passed, it will be as nothing if government agencies are unprepared for—or even fearful of—the costs and demands of transparent government (which precisely is one of the reasons offered by government spokespeople for FOI’s long gestation). Because of education and constructive citizen participation in government programs, we help prepare government for the demands of engaging with the people through prior and positive experiences. We must recall that freedom of information extends beyond resolving notorious scandals on high with the truth; it covers the humble nitty-gritty of governance such as budgeting for roads, medicines, and schools, and monitoring how the local mayor implements his campaign promises.

In fact for me, the added value of the FOI to society is not its enhancement of the ability of the press to investigate wrongdoings but its support for enhancing citizen engagement with government. As a constitutional law professor and as the recently elected Chairman of the Philippine Press Council, I certainly believed in the critical role of the press. But in my view, the value of an FOI for good governance goes way beyond its utility to the media.

With demands and protest, a people spurs government action through fear: fear of failure and fear of penalty. Yet (and reiterating a point from last week’s column) it cannot be fear, deterrence, and opposition alone. We must also help inspire government’s own trust: in itself, in the open system, in the people it works with, and in freedom of information itself, through public support for our champions in government, and with solutions on the ground and ready to run. Even as the fight for FOI rages on, social accountability advocates are already laying down the necessary foundations for its successful implementation.

Social accountability, in particular citizen participation is a must for good governance. Access to information is essential for such engagement. Freedom of information is the most potent tool for access to information. Therefore, for the straight and true road to good governance, I appeal to the Congress, with support of the President: pass the FOI bill now!

This is the 5th in Dr. La Viña's 6 column series on social accountability.  Links to the first four below.
  1. Social accountability, an imperative
  2. Social Accountability in the MILF Negotiations
  3. Making social accountability happen
  4. Social accountability, antidote to corruption
The writer is Dean of the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG)  and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific (ANSA-EAP).  This essay was first published in the 27 September 2011 online and print edition of the Manila Standard Today. It is featured in VOICES with the writer's permission. Dean La Viña can be reached through e-mail at tonylavs (at) gmail.com and twitter: tonylavs

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